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Increase Treatment, Reduce Prison Population

A strongly worded opinion piece appeared in Talladega’s Daily Home Newspaper. Distilled down, the article makes the point that overcrowded prison problem could be addressed by offering more treatment programs for low-level drug offenders, instead of incarceration.

Initiatives meant to revamp sentencing guidelines would affect both federal and state prisons, depending on where they pass. Both the federal prison system and our state prisons are holding more than capacity, with Alabama prisons at twice the number of inmates they are designed for. According to the article, we have 31,000 inmates in a system meant for 14,000. On the federal level, Attorney General Eric Holder puts the overage at 40 percent above capacity.

Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi have the top three spots in the number of incarcerated citizens on a per capita basis.

Granting that at least some of the overage comes from non-violent drug offenses, getting users into treatment instead of imprisoning them seems rational. But it comes with some nuances not explored in the opinion piece. For example, we currently add time when drug possession is coupled with a firearm or when there are children involved. Should these be handled the same way or granted mercy?

Other problems come from the definitions of trafficking and dealing in drugs. An otherwise low-level drug addict might very well become involved in selling drugs as a way to support their habit. Strangely, the very attribute (drug addiction) that makes them generally unfit to hold a job makes them idea for getting into the illegal drug business. The problem is separating out these circumstantial dealers from the really bad guys we’d like to put away.

One answer is to allow judges more discretion in sentencing, so that they can decide which defendant ought to be in prison and which might deserve a second chance and treatment instead. But even here there are practical problems. An elected judge might very well want to appear “tough on crime” to win votes, and what do you do when a repeat offender has already been through a round (or several) of treatment? At some point, prison may do them more good than rehab.

It’s a complex problem, and the number of people incarcerated is just one part of the mix. Sentencing reform is certainly worth looking at, but it shouldn’t become a “get out of jail free” card.


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